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Can blacks keep gains in a slowing economy?

Record educational gains may help break boom-bust cycle of the past 60 years.

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In the 1990s, African-Americans finally latched onto the nation's economic boom and have ridden it to new highs. But in downturns, they've been the most vulnerable to layoffs. Does this economic slowdown promise anything different?

The pattern of the past six decades looks so strong that many economists doubt today's black workers will be able to break the cycle. If they don't and the downturn becomes severe, then the economic gains African-Americans have reaped during the 1990s could be erased. The most marginal workers among them will lapse again into joblessness.

But there's one cause for hope. African-Americans have attained record levels of education, according to Census figures released today. And this time, some black economic development officials say, the message is getting through. Education is the closest thing to a one-way street of progress.

"One thing you can plan for in this economy is change. And the way to cope with it is to go to school," says Clyde McQueen, president of the Full Employment Council, a nonprofit job-training organization in Kansas City, Mo. "Twenty years ago ... people didn't know the value of an education." Now, thanks to the long technology-based boom, everybody understands, he adds.

Just as technology stocks were hitting their peaks last March, African-Americans reached new highs of educational achievement. According to today's Census report, 79 percent of black adults 25 years and older held a high school diploma. One in 6 (17 percent) could boast a college bachelor's degree.

The long economic boom also helped push up wages and salaries to new highs, the Census reported.

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